Music Impairs Associative Memory in Older Adults

For older adults, music or background noise may hinder their efforts to focus on putting names with faces, according to a recent study.

As we age, we go through changes, and for workplaces with older employees, managers may have to consider their needs in order to make for a more productive environment. Science Daily reported on a recent study, which looks at how background noise can compromise associative memory, particularly in older folks.


Sarah Reaves and Audrey Duarte from Georgia Institute of Technology headed up the study that was published in the journal The Gerontologist. The researchers brought in a group of young and old adult participants to study face-name pairs, splitting them into groups that would memorize while listening to non-lyrical music or in complete silence. Then the groups were asked to match those faces with names to test their associative memory. Reaves reported:

"Both age groups agreed that the music was distracting. But only the older adults struggled while it was playing in the background."

The older adults recalled 10 percent fewer names than the younger participants when they did the test while music played. Researchers attribute these results to something called the “cocktail party effect,” which allows people to focus on one conversation in a noisy environment — a skill that becomes more difficult as we age. Duarte said in a press release:

"Older adults have trouble ignoring irrelevant noises and concentrating. Associative memory also declines with age. As we get older, it's harder to remember what name went with a face or where a conversation took place."

The researchers write:

“These data have important practical implications for older adults’ ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks even in what many consider to be an unobtrusive environment.”

This research could help assisted-living facilities plan and arrange more productive spaces that cater to their needs, and even help offices arrange their workplaces to allow young and aging staffers to thrive.

Read more at Science Daily.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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